Pam Asheton, www.pamasheton.ca
Photographs courtesy of Pam Asheton

Snow on August 15th, this year and also in 2005!

The year 2005 was the year I've since regularly journaled all backcountry details, at that point for what would later become the equestrian Alberta trails guidebook.  June that particular year had the notorious 200-year floods that sluiced through foothills, flooded Sundre, High River (well-named, wondered if the residents ever wondered why?!) and then the bated-breath wait southwards to see if the sand-bagged Red River would hold for communities in danger of huge water damage issues.

Interestingly, though, after that, these last five years have proven that 2005's subsequent months were the best summer

Alberta's had.  Sunshine, hot days, whispering winds and the last ride I did that November down in the Sheep returning in moonlight had us with two thick sweaters on a breathlessly still evening.  August 15th, both 2005 and now 2009, though, was when I recorded the first high dustings of snow on our 'shining mountains', the native name for the extremely boringly English version 'The Rockies' (translated from the Spanish which again has far more romance for the imagination!).  A couple of girlfriends outfitting are reporting seriously cold nights; one cooking up in Banff National Park is already up to two Arctic level sleeping bags, one packed inside the other.

Jasper and the Willmore are seriously beautiful destinations, remote, photogenic, wildlife plus.  Last year Jasper National Park had two major celebratory commemorative trips, one being One Hundred Years of the Mountain Metis -  in association with their Jasper and local foothills' historical footprint - and the other being descendents of the Earl of Southesk on their own unique backcountry adventure on the extreme opposite side of the Park (first achieved in 1859 by the ninth earl, James Carnegie).

Packing is an artform - even excluding mastering the knack of those darned diamond-hitch knots! - in balancing the gear and weight exactly equal either side of your pack-saddle.

Southesk had been advised to undertake the expedition in an attempt to improve his health after the death of his wife.  Extraordinarily and through sheer coincidence, he met up with another early Victorian Scottish adventurer James Hector, traveling northwards through the Pipestone Pass.  Carnegie's health, incidentally, definitely improved; he and his second wife celebrated no less than eight children. 

The year 2010 sees Jasper next celebrating the 150th anniversary of the developing of the Athabasca Pass and explorers.

“In Jasper,” remarks Chief Park Warden Steve Otway, “we're actively promoting horse use, for private users and outfitters in these areas.” 

Wilderness passes are available at the Columbia Icefields Information Centre, and also the Information Centre (Monday to Friday) in Jasper itself.  Grazing permits run at $1.65 per day per horse, and humans at $9.80 per day.  Grazing rights run under a system of managed grass along your planned routes (as operates too in Banff National Park, so pre-booking please -- telephone numbers at the end of this article) .  Many equestrian trails run along logging and exploration roads, and valley and creeksides (this sometimes translates to muskeg and bog, horses-with-big-feet are a definite plus!....Mary Schaffer mentions this in her 1911 expedition to Maligne Lake chronicled in  “A Hunter of Peace” (still in print).

The mountains around Jasper run in high SPECTACULAR ridgelines.  One early fur-traders' route south of the town begins with the Whirlpool Fire Road before it transforms itself with real integrity into the Athabasca Pass Trail.  Here are numerous overnighting campgrounds as you edge towards the BC border.  There's a very small lake (“a pond really,” remarked one warden) nicknamed The Committee Punchbowl, allegedly where those very first voyageurs de bois met, bartered and exchanged stories growing taller as the whiskey bottles emptied.  There's a ford, too, at Kane Pass which can be a bit interesting to negotiate, and after which the trail also becomes far more challenging and not horse-friendly – the views there and back, though, to the Moab Lake trailhead carpark, are out of this world.

Personally I always carry bear spray (check the expiry date, this can be kinda critical if you have ridden between Mrs Grizzly and her cub and the thing fizzles - oops).  Black bears are numerous up here and most run a mile in the opposite direction, but it pays to hang your food caches up high (above 8' definitely), no food (even toothpaste) in tents and again, personally, I hotwire my horses (please, get them used to this at home beforehand!).  Oats and sweetfeed, molasses  are definitely 'no' items.  My solar panel rides on the outside of the horses' sidepacks, charging up during daytime hours; for me hotwiring around where I'm sleeping too means I actually do snooze, as opposed to listening out for every leaf rustle and twig crack overnight, and being thoroughly crotchety by dawn's first light.  Black bears fall-time are around up here, busy stuffing down saskatoons, raspberries and the equivalent daily calorific intake of 64 Big Macs (seriously!) to transfer into winter hibernation fat.

Doug and Mary King, with Ken Komm, and Fiddle Pass looking north in Jasper National Park.
Photograph courtesy of Ken Zelt

The Maligne Pass Trail is superb, particularly if you can do a two-trailer deal, one dropped off, and then motoring to the other end for a one-way journey – again, there are overnighting campgrounds, the Old Horse, Schaffer and Trapper Creek going northwards towards the Opal Mountains (and where there's a superb hiking lookout that'll get your photographs onto the front page of any travel magazine going - even if your own personal lungs are on epic protest manoeuvers). 

Older Gem-Trek maps, by the way, are incorrect although the sixth edition now is spot on.  Horses are NOT allowed on the Watchtower Trail.  And, right now, there's considerable deadfall on the North Boundary Trail to Snake Indian Falls, although just slightly further southwards the Vine Creek Trail is fine. 

Closer to Jasper itself is the Saturday Night Lake Loop (shared with bikers and hikers) and beautiful with jeweled lakes.  If your horses truly are muscle and cardio fit, AND you have two trailers, heaven comes close if you ride the Portal Creek trail, with a choice of four overnight campsights en route, returning via the Astoria River Trail to end up at the historic Cavell House.  Mount Edith Cavell, which looms overtop at a monstrous 3,336 metres (11,033 feet), was named, by the way, in honour of a WWI nurse of that name who enterprisingly smuggled many of her patients out past enemy German lines.

Also from Jasper, going deeper westwards, is the (switchbacked again) Elysium Pass campground, tucked into mountain backdrops and looking along the

There's a softness to the light known to photographers as 'the golden hour' that's almost mystical in Alberta's oncoming fall months, offset by the frost-red leaves of wild geraniums
and wild strawberry.

Yellowhead Highway route heading towards Valemount and McBride, where the snow-clad high reaches of Mount Robson can be glimpsed.  Much as I love the open rolling foothills of the #22 southwards to the Crowsnest, Porcupine Hills and Livingstone Gap, the Yellowhead Highway in the fall with its larches, and fall colours, muskeg and lakes filled with industrious beavers damming up waterway after waterway,  and moose after antlered moose, snatches my heartstrings every time. 

Be warned though, if you are pulling a rig up from the Banff and southern areas, there are loooooooong climbs where your poor truck climbs and climbs and

climbs, and it's a bit critical to carry emergency radiator water/coolants, and keep an eye on your engine temperatures.

North of Jasper are yet more gorgeous trails, again often running along valleys between stunning mountain ranges – Miette, Fidler, DeSmet – and with backcountry campgrounds.  Venture into the enchanting wild and highly seductive country of the Willmore Wilderness (currently being hotly debated as a possible UNESCO Heritage Site) and you may never want to come home.

Here's a knife on the back cinch, one quick easy-access inside your saddlebag PLUS one velcro snapped onto your jeans' belt - if you ride consistenly in the backcountry you can bet your bottom dollar at one time you'll eventually use/need every one of them.

Useful telephone numbers and information sites:
Jasper Park Information (general public): 780-852-6176
Jasper Trails Office (for permits, information on trails, weather and everything else besides - Monday to Friday only for
permits): 780-852-6177
Jasper Warden's Office: 780-852-6156
Alberta Outfitters (www.albertaoutfitters.com): 1-800-742-5548

For a comprehensive horse-users information guide from Parks Canada for the Jasper area, please click on http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/activ/activ6_e.asp – this printout details grazing requirements, recommended campground pre-booking, telephone contact numbers, specific trails detailed not for equestrian use, purchases of a National Park Pass, grazing and wilderness permits, plus reservation costs.  Horse stabling and holding corral (there are nine available) information is also available at this website (or telephone the Information Centre/780-852-6177).

Gem-Trek maps are readily available at gas stations and information offices (www.gemtrek.com JASPER AND MALIGNE LAKE edition/backpage of the map has mega-helpful info too).  Topog

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